Before I get started, I should probably admit to being one of those people who “didn’t really read crime fiction” before shacking up with Do Some Damage’s own Jay Stringer. In fact, there are some who would argue that I still don’t really read the stuff - but that’s only because his second manuscript is a six-inch stack of A4 on top of the record player.
I don’t like to think of myself as any kind of literary snob, and so the past few years have proved invaluable in breaking down my personal prejudices around the genre. I’ve been a reader of DSD from the beginning, and although I tend to keep quiet in their comments a few related sites have found their way onto my feed reader. Discussions around “literary vs. genre” and parallels drawn between the medium and film or music have proved of particular interest.
And so I’ve come to discover that crime fiction isn’t all grizzly hard-drinking PIs, listening to classic rock and hating on their ex-wives in smoky front seats. For one thing if a stakeout counts as a place of work nobody’s smoking in any of them these days; and for another there’s work by the likes of Megan Abbott in the to-read pile or Joelle Charbonneau’s witty and engaging columns on this site every second Sunday. Just recently I found myself heading off for a Stringer-free week away laden down with the latest books from a couple of Glasgow-based female contributors to the crime fiction genre - Donna Moore and Helen Fitzgerald - and I’ve let the other half persuade me to take a night off from writing about bands for my own site in order to let you know what I thought.
Bloody Women isn’t the first Helen Fitzgerald novel I have read - that honour goes to 2009’s The Devil’s Staircase - but it was no less engaging for all that even if possibly not the best thing to read six weeks off my own wedding to a crime writer. The novel’s heroine, Catriona Marsden, is about to marry a handsome Italian hunk and settle into the good life in sunny Tuscany; but before she does so she’s determined to tie up some loose ends, as it were - in the form of four ex-boyfriends. And when they all turn up dead, there’s only one obvious conclusion.
Here’s another genre that gets vilified: so-called “chick lit”. Quite rightly so, from the few examples I’ve skimmed through on holidays for lack of anything else to do, which is why you might find it surprising I’d tentatively tag Fitzgerald’s writing with that much maligned label. There are no pink cupcakes or six-inch high heels on the cover of this book. The average twenty-something airport shopper is unlikely to pick it up. Fitzgerald probably wouldn’t appreciate it if her publishers took that tack anyway, but there’s something so incredibly refreshing about her writing style that I pity those judge-a-book-by-its-cover types who are missing out. Bloody Women is an intelligent, frank and at times downright disturbing read, peopled with twisted characters you don’t want to like but who are crafted so skillfully and believably you find yourself doing so anyway. Quite apart from that this book is funny as all hell, as well as being one of the most unpredictable things I have ever read. Fitzgerald is already a master of her genre, and frankly I’m begging for more.
Old Dogs, the second novel from Donna Moore, does have some pink cupcakes on the cover - but it also has a smoking handgun, so don’t let that put you off. As I was already a big fan of Moore’s writing through her Scottish crime fiction blog, Big Beat From Badsville, I was looking forward to this arriving and it doesn’t disappoint - the same wicked irreverence with which she tells her famous stories of the number 62 bus permeates her fiction writing and this is an accomplished debut. Depending on your level of politeness, and possibly your native dialect, the “old dogs” of the title are either some jewel-encrusted antique Shih Tzus or two hard-drinking elderly sisters in punk rock t-shirts and motorcycle boots who somehow manage to disguise themselves as Italian aristocracy with hilarious - and, for some, fatal - consequences.
This book cries out for a film adaptation, particularly as far as its climatic museum scenes are concerned: protagonists cross paths and fall over each other with the screwball comedy - albeit with a sinister edge - of all the best capers and Moore’s lively prose brings it all to life perfectly. It would actually more than likely be a low budget STV adaptation, just because Hollywood would doubtless balk at all the swearing and fail to get the accents right anyway.
There aren’t really any good guys in this one, but there’s a fair few you’ll find yourself rooting for anyway. Moore doesn’t shy away from a few violent scenes where it’s needed to get her point across - and with my native city so vividly captured on the page, I’ve looked twice when passing a fair few alleyways recently.
Anyway, if you’ve got a few weeks off coming up and you want your summer reading engrossing, entertaining and thoroughly dark-hearted, you could do worse than to check out these two.